I recently made an inspirational visit to Japan, 14 years after my first visit when I won the BP Travel Award and had a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery in 1995 with the resulting work based on the Nissan car workers in Tokyo.
I had wanted to go back for many years and now just about felt like the right time. It was a grueling 10 days exploring every district of Tokyo with the main aim of getting portraits and contextual material. 2000 photographs and experiences later I have got more subject matter than I can shake a stick at.
I went to Tsukiji fish market again which is just about hanging in there ( about to be moved to another part of Tokyo) which is one of the main reasons I wnated to make the visit now before it goes because I still maintain that Tsukiji fish market is one of the most visually inspiring places and experiences on earth and it certaoinly didn’t disappoint 14 years on.It was barely asif a day had passed, it has a timeless almost Dickensian quality like the ancient temples and shrines. I went to Harajuku and met some of the punks there and made loads of portraits. You really haveto be very alert when doing street portraiture , not a genre I particularly like because most of my set ups are extremely controlled in terms of lighting and composition and pose, there is a kind of “winging it” approach and you just haveto take what you can get and hopr the lighting works. I certainly worked my way through a lot of punks and groovers and psychobilly’s , and ravers and costume play girls who congregate there on a Sunday morning, even with a hang over. I had some business cards printed up in Japanese before I went over saying basically I’m an artist from England doing a project on Japanese people, can I take your photograph please. I handed the cards out to peolpe on the street, in cafe’s and bars, in zoo’s, in temples, jazz clubs, everywhere I went and they read it and 9 times out of 10 they obliged.
I love travelling with a camera because it really makes you look at everything twice as hard and completely hightens the visual experience of travelling, I’m always looking , like they say about authors they are always analysing people at dinner parties for their next character or plot. I’m always looking for the next picture and then onto the next, it’s almost like a drug to me.
I also went to Kamakura where the fantastic and huge Daihatsu Buddha calmly sits. Man alive, they knew something about sculptural spirituality back in the 9th century. That whole area is filled with temples and shrines and is the most beautiful place. I got some great portraits of monks there, again just winging it.
I met up with my old friend Anthony from my foundation course in Stafford 20 years ago. He lives in Tokyo and took us to a great underground Japanese Jazz club in Tokyo (ticked that box - as Anne said) . Akita’s club – Dark, dingy and holding an audience of about 20 people. I had pre -arranged to take some portrait photographs of Isao Suzuki. He has played with the giants of American jazz including Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Art Blakey – ( indeed he was one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1960′s, good chops and credentials for sure) He’s in his 70′s now but still looks super cool and I got some great shots and will definitely be doing a portrait of him.
Other areas I especially enjoyed were Asakusa and Ueno, they felt particularly authentic and in many ways the working class areas of Tokyo I guess, in comparison to the gloss of Ginza , Shibuya and Roppongi.
So, lots of inspiration and subject matter, I’m just digesting it at the moment but I know that there is a a lot of potential paintings and drawings there, it’s a case of strict editing I think. For the past 6 months or so I’ve been thinking endlessly about my next big project. While I walk our dog Max twice a day I’m constantly thinking about my work and the next projects. I never sit at a drawing board or easel and wait for the “muse to strike”, ideas come all the time and at any time and never sitting infront of a desk with a white page sketch book. So, I’ve been pacing the streets of Walsall with Max thinking about which direction to push the work. I knew that it was going to be about portraiture, my first love but who. For months I thought about comedians, musicians, outsiders, Hells Angels , Tokyo portraits etc, etc, etc…….. The ideas always come thick and fast and I have problems sorting out the good from the bad like all artists but my usual rule is that if it still seems like a good idea 6 monthjs later then it’s going to work. I felt that a neat, comfortable group of portraits , eg like musicians would work well but after much thought, deliberation, sketchbook work and attempts to contact people I decided that the project would be about PORTRAITURE. 6 months of walking and thinking and development, around my core commission work, and the answer was Portraiture, which I knew all along. I want to keep it open and organic. It’s great to do a full project on Tokyo people or comedians but I enjoy the ecclectic mix of portraits and people. I always say that you can travel 1000′s of miles to find good subject matter but it’s on your own doorstep if you look for it. I love the serendipidy of walking around your own environment and finding interesting people and I didn’t want to neglect that aspect of portraiture. I want to keep it alive and as I say , organic , and constantly growing and open. This will be an ongoing project, certainly not over night so just hang on in there and watch this space.
Finally I’d just like to say thanks to Alex and Eun Ju and Anthony for there kindness generosity while I was in Japan.
November 30th, 2008